December 29, 2008
Cinema's Exiles: From Hitler to Hollywood
Documentary illustrates European emigrants' influence on filmmaking
Cinema's Exiles: From Hitler to Hollywood, airing Thursday, Jan. 1 on most PBS stations (check local listings for time and date), tells the story of the hundreds of Jewish artists – actors, writers, directors, composers, cinematographers, editors, set designers and more – who fled Europe during the 1930s and '40s and helped to create many of the masterpieces of American cinema.
It's a story that's been told many times in print and is often discussed in college lecture halls but, oddly, has not been told in this depth on film – perhaps because so many of the people discussed are long gone, and the specifics of their emigration to the U.S. were rarely examined in filmed interviews.
Much of producer-director Karen Thomas' two-hour documentary consists of existing footage of Germany, Austria and Hollywood from the period, along with dozens of still photographs of her key subjects and occasional home-movie excerpts. Sigourney Weaver's narration is augmented by archival interviews (notably a 1990 one with director Billy Wilder and another, from 1995, with editor Rudy Fehr) as well as recent ones with screenwriter Peter Viertel and actress Lupita Kohner.
Cinema's Exiles begins with the rise of Nazism and the growing tide of anti-Jewish sentiment in Germany in the 1930s. The result was the exodus of such film professionals as Wilder and fellow directors Fritz Lang, Fred Zinnemann and Henry Koster; actors Peter Lorre, Felix Bressart and Hedy Lamarr; cinematographer Rudy Mate; and composers Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Franz Waxman and Frederick Hollander.
Their eventual work on such Hollywood classics as The Bride of Frankenstein, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Ninotchka, To Be or Not to Be, Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard, High Noon, The Big Heat and Some Like It Hot is highlighted with numerous film clips. An entire segment is devoted to the many Jewish emigres who make up the bulk of the justly famous supporting cast of Casablanca.
Of special interest to film-music fans is the attention paid to the composers and songwriters who arrived in America and helped to create the "Hollywood sound" of symphonic scoring. Rare footage of Waxman (in one case, a phenomenal shot of Waxman in Berlin, playing the piano and singing), Korngold (at the piano in Hollywood) and Miklos Rozsa (skating!) is featured, along with photos of Hollander, Ernest Gold, Hans Salter, and Werner Richard Heymann – and in some cases extensive quotes from the composers are read by actors (in the style of Ken Burns' documentaries).
An additional plus is the music of Peter Melnick, who applies an appropriate Kurt Weill-like score for scenes in Germany and an upbeat, jazzy sound for happier times in Hollywood. Waxman's son John W. Waxman served as creative consultant on the project, ensuring accuracy in the telling of this important story.